Genetically edited

October 2014
CC photo by Antoine.Couturier on Flickr
The first use of 20th century technology to re-jig living organisms to conform to human specifications was mutagenesis. 
Mutagenesis involves a scatter-gun induction of random DNA modification using chemicals or radiation. Survivors of the onslaught are screened for commercially useful new characteristics. The desired mutation is purified of the collateral genomic wreckage around it by repeated breeding with healthy mates.
It seems that mutagenesis was considered no more than an accelerated version of natural Darwinian random mutation followed by selection of a human-defined 'fittest'. No one told consumers what was being done to their food, and no safety-testing was ever considered (See below).
The second wave of organism-fixing technology stemmed from the discovery of how to engineer DNA and insert it into living cells.
At first, this was referred to as 'genetic engineering' (GE) to produce 'genetically engineered organisms' (GEOs), a terminology which Americans have stuck to while ensuring their consumers remained unaware of the presence of GEOs in their food. In Europe, where any such cover-up wasn't possible, and anything 'engineered' on your plate sound horribly unnatural, a hasty initiative was launched to make everyone call the living products of genetic engineering 'genetically modified' (GM).
Sadly, while the public refused to swallow the GM food, they were forced to swallow the misnomer. So-called 'GM' foods now on the market have no (deliberate) “modifications” of a gene according to any usual definition of the word (see below).
This genetic 'modification' trick was used to try to pretend that the technique is just an extension of what conventional farmers have been doing for thousands of years. And just as safe and 'natural'. This propaganda is being repeated by unwary journalists to this day. Since the technique of GE/GM (and mutagenesis) don't actually involve breeding, and since what old-fashioned farmers have been doing is increasing the prevalence of existing useful gene complements by breeding, the idea of any similarity is just plain silly.
The third high-tech organism fix to come along was “synthetic biology” (dubbed 'synthia') which seems to have come to encompass anything from GE/GM to the insertion of whole swathes of engineered (definitely not 'modified') DNA and even whole artificial (not 'modified') chromosomes [3].
Synthetic' biology can't even pretend to be natural.
Or, can it?
Apparently, an artificial substance generated by artificial DNA in an organism which used to be natural, and then extracted from the said son-of-natural organism, is not GM, GE, or synthia: it is a 'natural' product. 
In the first instance such products are due to come from yeast and can avoid the 'artificial' epithet by being a 'product of fermentation'. No doubt, future substances extracted from synthetic-biologised crops will also be 'natural' and will have their own unique misnomer. 
Note. And, no doubt they'll all be too 'natural' to be safety-tested. If you can't see anything dangerous about this, read up on the GM tryptophan disaster of 1989.
And, if you thought that was the end of the story, there's more to get your head round. It seems we've now got yet another layer of technology devised to customise life.
Admitting, for the first time, the existence of inherent and problematic imprecision in the GE/GM methods used so far, we are presented with 'genetically edited organisms' (confusingly, 'GEOs').
As the name suggests, genetic editing involves making precise changes in the DNA at precise locations. However, what's done with precision can take several forms: 
  • a random mutation can be induced at a precise location (actually mutagenesis which is obviously not precise)
  • an engineered gene can be inserted at a precise location (actually GE - meaning engineered not edited)
  • DNA changes can be made in a precise gene (actually GM in the true meaning of the word 'modified') 
A recent scientific review of GE (meaning edited not engineered) was very enthusiastic about the potential for higher consumer acceptance, and the possibility that GEOs (meaning edited not engineered) might be deemed non-genetically modified i.e. 'natural'. 
Be aware that:  
  • All these technological tricks are being tried because their outcomes would be impossible to produce using breeding: they are all genetically unnatural (GUOs?). 
  • All these technologies have unpredictable side-effects in the wider genome and have the potential for harmful qualities to arise.  
  • Gene 'editing' may sound precise, but the complexity and fluidity of the genome being what it is, the wrong bit might well be edited.  
  • These methods are all akin to infectious disease.
How such organisms will evolve over time when they end up, as they must do, in the environment is any's guess. And how our physiology will react to weird food from genetically weird organisms (GWOs?) is a question you'll have to demand answers to because no one's testing them. 
[1] For example, Non-Random Directed Mutations Confirmed - Science in Society 60 Winter 2013 
Does mutagenesis produce safe food? 
There may be signs the gung-ho assumption of safety in such a destructive technology was mis-placed: 
Outside the cosy clique of mainstream Darwin-worshipping scientists, questions are being raised about whether random mutation actually has much, if any, role in natural evolution or is compatible with healthy DNA [1]. 
Since the products of mutagenesis crept into our diet, chronic disease has spiralled out of control. However, in the absence of scientific testing, baseline health measurements, or monitoring, we can't tell if there are links. 
Recent research has shown permanent increases in stress markers in mutagenised plants [2] 
“Make less severe or decided, tone down; make partial changes in.” Oxford English Dictionary
  • Genome editing no as precise as it's made out, comments from Dr. Michael Angoniou GM Watch 15.08.14
  • Nathan Gray, Forget genetically modified, here's to genetically edited, Food Navigator 14.08.14
  • Fiona Harvey, Genome editing of crops may be restricted by EU rules, warn scientists, The Guardian 21.07.14
  • John Fagan, Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, Is GM technology becoming more precise? GMO Myths and Truths, May 2014
  • Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt, New Yorker Magazine, 25.08.14 

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